current issue button
about TXCC button
back issues button
manuscript guidelines button
resources button
Acquire PDF for full version of this article.
  (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader®)

Boost toddler learning with blocks


Blocks offer lots of learning and development opportunities—even for toddlers. By playing with blocks, toddlers enhance physical development and fine motor coordination. If playing with another child, a toddler can practice cooperation, language, and emotional regulation.

Blocks expand cognitive development. They help toddlers learn math concepts, especially sizes, shapes, numbers, and patterns. Blocks can also encourage toddlers to explore science concepts, such as gravity, color, and cause-and-effect as well as provide an outlet for creative expression.

Blocks vary greatly in size, material, and type. A main concern for toddlers is that blocks be safe—that is, large enough to pose no choking hazard, lightweight, and washable. You can introduce toddlers to blocks with two or more handmade cloth blocks as well as jumbo blocks made from cardboard or foam. Interlocking blocks such as Mega® and DUPLO®, which are like LEGOs® but larger, can provide more challenge.

As children move into classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds, they will likely play with hardwood unit blocks, so called because all are related in size to the basic unit: 1 ¾ inches by 2 ¾ inches by 5 ½ inches. Other varieties include ABC blocks, bristle blocks, LEGOs, and translucent light blocks, among others.


Give toddlers time to explore blocks. Talk about color, texture, and shape. Children will likely try mouthing blocks, swatting at them, picking them up and dropping them, tossing them, and carrying them around. Gradually you can suggest placing blocks end to end in a line or circle as well as stacking them one on top of the other.

Remember that a toddler’s attention span is limited, and the child may quickly move to playing with something else.

Ordinarily, we expect children to build with blocks, but the beauty of this learning material is that blocks can be used in other learning activities, such as the ones below.


Make a cloth block
Cloth blocks are easy to make. If you don’t have a sewing machine, a parent might be willing to make blocks for you.

One block requires six 4-inch squares of fabric. If you make one red block, for example, you will need a strip of fabric 4 inches by 24 inches. Of course, you may choose different fabric patterns (plaid, stripes, polka dots, flowers, animals) and different textures (fleece, denim, wool, cotton). Your families may be happy to donate scraps.

Before cutting or sewing the squares, launder them to make sure they won’t shrink and the color won’t fade or bleed. Because toddlers put everything in their mouths, you can expect to launder these blocks often. For thin cotton fabric, you may need to attach lightweight interfacing (Pellon®) to the back so the squares will hold their shape when stuffed.


Here’s what you need:
6 squares of fabric, each 4 inches on a side
matching thread
straight pins
fiber stuffing
sewing machine


1. Choose which square will be on top of the block and lay it right side down on a flat surface.
2. Pin one square to each side, right sides together. Sew the sides together with a ¼-inch seam allowance. The result will be a cross, with the top square in the middle.
3. Sew the remaining square to one end, making a “T” shape. This square will be the bottom.
4. Bring up two adjoining sides at a time, pin, and sew together, forming a cube. Leave an opening between two squares for turning out and stuffing.
5. Turn the block right side out, pushing out the corners with your little finger or an unsharpened pencil.
6. Push the stuffing through the opening, making sure it fills the corners.
7. Sew the opening closed by hand, using an invisible stitch.

Variations: Make a texture block using fabrics such as corduroy, satin, burlap, lace, fake fur, and terrycloth. Talk about each texture as the child explores it.


Learning colors
Between 18 months and 2 years, children are learning the names of objects, such as dog, car, and apple, for example. It may take a while for them to learn the names of characteristics of things, such as color. (For an informative article on this topic, see Why Johnny can’t name his colors in Scientific American, July 13, 2010,


Here’s what you need:
3 or 4 cloth or foam blocks, each a different solid color (primary colors such as red, yellow, blue, and green)
large fabric squares in the same colors, preferably made from identical fabric


1. Show the child the blocks and fabric squares. Say, “I see a red block. Can you see a block that is red?” Wait for a minute for the child to pick the red one. If the child picks a different color, simply point to the red one and say, “This block is red.”
2. Repeat with the other three blocks.
3. Show the fabric squares. Ask: “Can you find the square that is red, like the red block? Do the same with the other three blocks and squares.
4. Over time, as the child learns to pick and match the colors correctly, ask about color in a different way. “What color is this block?” Naming the color is a harder task because the child has to distinguish the redness from the yellowness, blueness, and greenness of the other three blocks. Respond to the child’s answer in an encouraging way.


Balancing a block
Around 12 to 18 months of age, many children have learned to walk. Their efforts may be clumsy at first but soon they are off and running. Try this balancing activity indoors and outdoors.


Here’s what you need:
1 cloth block
open space for walking and running


1. Place the cloth block on your head and demonstrate how you can walk without the ball falling off. Encourage the toddler to imitate you.
2. Try other motions such as sitting down and standing up, turning the head, and walking up and down steps, for example.


Hiding a block
This game is an extension of peek-a-boo, in which babies learn object permanence—that is, an object continues to exist even when you can’t see it. Play this game on a rug or carpeted floor.


Here’s what you need:
cloth block
boxes, bags, and other containers


1. While the toddler is watching, place the block under the blanket: Ask: “Where’s the block?” When the child pulls the blanket off, say, “Great! You found it.”
2. Continue the game by hiding the block in other places--behind your back, in a box, in a paper sack, or in a tote bag. Each time, ask the child to find it.
3. As the child becomes more adept at finding the block, ask the child to cover his eyes or turn around so that he won’t see where you’re putting the block. Say, “I hid the block somewhere. Can you find it?”


Drop and dump a block
Toddlers love to drop objects into containers, take them out, and do this over and over again. As they observe gravity and motion, they are strengthening their fine-motor coordination.

Here’s what you need:
cloth block
assortment of other small objects, such as toy people or animal figures, balls, little stuffed animals, plastic cups
empty 1-gallon milk jug, cleaned and dried
sharp knife or scissors


1. Use the knife or scissors to cut off the top of an empty milk jug. In one side, cut a square hole large enough for the block to pass through.
2. Drop the cloth block into the top of the jug and ask the child to retrieve it. Observe whether the child reaches through the top or through the side hole.
3. Lay the empty jug on its side with the hole facing up. Insert the block into the hole, and ask the child to retrieve it.
4. If the child is still interested, place other objects in the jug. Invite the child to continue playing the game.


Bowling with blocks
Stacking things and knocking them down is a favorite game of children perhaps because it makes them feel powerful. Mainly, they are learning cause-and-effect, but they are also seeing how things fit together, move, and respond to gravity.


Here’s what you need:
3-4 ABC or other lightweight blocks
2-3 different sports balls (baseball, soccer, basketball)


1. Invite the child to stack blocks on top of each other to make a tower.
2. Demonstrate how to roll a ball toward the tower with enough force to knock it over. Let the child try. Start a few inches away and gradually move farther back.
3. Repeat the game using a different kind of ball.


Painting with blocks
Unlike flat-surface blocks, interlocking blocks have raised humps on one side and holes on another side to allow different blocks to lock in place. You can introduce this type of block by providing a painting activity that requires hands-on use. Have children wear smocks.


Here’s what you need:
3-4 Duplo blocks
tempera paint in two or more primary colors
white butcher paper


1. Tape a large piece of butcher paper to a table or flat surface.
2. Pour a small amount of the different colors of paint on the paper.
3. Invite the toddler to explore the blocks and paint. Demonstrate how to dip a block in paint and press it on the paper.


Continue the pattern
This activity can help toddlers improve their visual-spatial ability, eye-hand coordination, and fine-motor skills.

Here’s what you need:
20-30 large interlocking blocks


1. Snap four or five blocks of the same color together in a pattern, such as every other brick perpendicular to the one below it.
2. Invite the child to continue the pattern.
3. Try a different pattern or colors, such as small/large/small/large or red/yellow/red/yellow. Invite the child to continue the sequence.